How do we create a project plan?

How do we go about creating a project plan, including a detailed schedule? What are all the steps involved?
To get there from here, we need to establish where planning starts, what inputs are critical before jumping in, and what other project work goes hand in hand. Let's assume you've just been assigned to a project to add new features and capabilities to an existing product.

The most important question to ask before you launch into the work of the planning stage is this: what are we trying to accomplish for the customer of this project? The Initiation stage of work is supposed to ensure that any project starts with a really clear idea of what should be developed and why, and what is most important. Unfortunately, some projects get commissioned as big list of stuff to go do, and a team jumps into just planning out and doing all the work they see.

The foundation:
  • Objectives defined: The right way to start is by making sure the project objectives are clearly stated. If your project has a mission statement or Project Charter, great—you've got critical input for the planning stage. If not, write one as a foundation. But you're not ready to start giving dates out yet. (Don't let them make you!)
  • Scope and detailed requirements defined: The Project Charter will provide at least a starting picture of what's included in the project—the scope of what it has to create. Perhaps you've already been told in detail what features and functionality are required. However you start, the project team ultimately needs to define the requirements for the final product, identifying all the deliverables this project will create—what is "in scope" for this project—and any requirements details needed to really understand what's involved.
Creating the actual plan
  • Work breakdown: The scope and requirements above bridge the team from the project's objectives to defining all the big pieces of work, which form the foundation of the plan and schedule. The Work Breakdown Structure is a technique for systematically identifying all the work required to create the project deliverables. Functional groups might draft early plans for certain activities to help ferret out additional activities to put into the WBS.
  • Resources, estimates, time: Once the team has defined how to break down the work, each functional area needs to identify the resources (people, materials, equipment, etc.) needed for each piece of the work, and estimate the time and costs required to complete it.
  • Integrated schedule with dependencies: The project manager integrates the pieces into a master plan and schedule, taking into account all the dependencies among people's work and the estimates the team members have come up with for each piece.
  • Risks, tradeoffs, decision-making: The team may need to iterate the plan, analyzing risks and deciding how to handle them; looking at places where the schedule is longer than desired; and looking for tradeoffs to make to meet desired end date, cost, or scope goals.
  • Project plan document creation: Finally, the team can document the plan in a Project Plan document that summarizes what the project will do and how.
This is a very high-level overview of the project planning effort. For an in-depth review, see our very detailed guidelines for each step in this process:

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